Betty Compson is not a well-remembered star, yet she scored an Oscar nomination for lead actress, appeared in more than 200 films and had a career that spanned more than 30 years. She worked with major stars like Gary Cooper, Lon Chaney, Richard Barthelmess, Wallace Beery, Warner Baxter, Mary Astor and Dorothy Mackaill. In the early years of talkies, Compson was the busiest actress in Hollywood. Yet few of her films were memorable, and the majority of them no longer exist. Perhaps her greatest films were the silent classic The Docks of New York and the part-talkie carnival film, The Barker.
The Comeback Kid
Compson broke into films in 1915 after she was discovered playing the violin in a touring act. She was signed by Al Christie and appeared in more than 70 films until she was fired in 1918 for refusing to make personal appearances. Compson slowly gained the notice of critics and audiences although the Christie films were usually 2-reel comedies. Christie didn’t pay much so Compson was broke and reluctantly took a role in a serial.
But Compson (the original “Comeback Kid”) had made a lot of contacts and was friends with many rising stars of the day. By the end of 1918 she had landed a star-making role in a feature film with Lon Chaney, The Miracle Man. With a Paramount contract ($2,500 per week); Compson was a top studio star for a few years. But when her contract was up for renewal, Paramount refused to give her a raise. She quit and moved to England.
After a few years she returned to Paramount when one of her British films proved to be a hit. Director James Cruze also wanted her for The Enemy Sex. She signed for $3,500 per week. She married Cruze, but then startled Hollywood by quitting Paramount again and signing one-picture deals for big paychecks with “poverty-row” studios. The subsequent backlash from Paramount pegged Compson as a washed up has-been in Hollywood. But she kept working.
Cruze and Compson divorced and his bankruptcy also forced her to sell off properties. Almost broke again, Compson rebounded by getting signed for The Big City in 1928 with Chaney. She followed this with The Docks of New York with George Bancroft and The Barker (both 1928). Suddenly Compson was back on top with a series of major hit films. In addition to this career comeback, Compson earned an Oscar nomination for best actress in The Barker (she lost to Mary Pickford for Coquette). She co-starred with Milton Sills and Dorothy Mackaill, and the film contained some talking sequences. The sound revolution had come. The film was remade as Hoopla with Clara Bow.
With a strong clear voice Compson had a whole new career in talkies and was, for the next few years, the busiest actress in Hollywood. In 1929 alone, she appeared in nine talkies, including the controversial Weary River with Richard Barthelmess, the backstage murder mystery On with the Show, the all-star revue Paramount on Parade, and The Great Gabbo with Erich von Stroheim.
Weary River was perhaps the first film in which someone else dubbed an actor’s singing voice. Although Richard Barthelmess claimed the singing voice was his, it was proven not to be. The public outcry was so great that stars like Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford and Colleen Moore signed “affidavits” attesting that their talking/singing voices were their own and plastered them in ads for their upcoming films. Compson, however, got good notices and the film was a hit.
In On with the Show, Compson seems to have no part, with Sally O’Neil and William Bakewell as the young lovers taking center stage until the final reel. Then Compson takes over; she’s terrific in scenes that were originally shot in Technicolor (now lost) as the murder is solved.
The oddest of her 1929 films was probably The Great Gabbo, in which Erich von Stroheim plays a demented ventriloquist and Compson his assistant and love interest. Compson gets to sing and dance in this film, and there are two startling sequences. One is the “Web of Love” number, which must rank among the most bizarre in Hollywood history. Compson and Donald Douglas are dressed as a fly and spider and are perched on a huge spider’s web. As they descend the web and go into their dance, other “insects” crawl around the web. Compson performs some of the dancing but most of it is done by doubles in long shots. However there is a moment when Compson is held aloft in a back bend and the camera clearly shows her face (upside down) speaking a line in her distinctive voice. It’s an eerie scene.
During 1930 she kept up her torrid pace, making nine films. Chief among these were The Spoilers with Gary Cooper and an obscure little spy drama called Inside the Lines, in which she gets to play the violin. In 1931 she made five films, including The Lady Refuses (for RKO), playing a Cockney prostitute. But none of the films after The Spoilers were big box office hits, and by 1932 she was working for “poverty row” studios again. From this point until her last film in 1948, Compson made films in Hollywood and England, but she rarely had the starring role and she rarely worked for a major studio. But still she kept working.
There were two missed connections that might have altered her career. She was too busy to co-star with Lon Chaney in his only talkie, The Unholy Three in 1930. Lila Lee got the part. And in 1927, Compson was MGM’s second choice to star with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. In the usual studio politics, MGM kept Greta Garbo in line by always having a “backup” in case she got too difficult. Compson was the backup; Garbo did the film and became a superstar.
Compson was interviewed in 1928 and talked about her career. Although she never really became a major star, she said, “My wickedness has kept me going. I wouldn’t have lasted more than five years as an ingénue.”
The Barker was restored by UCLA a few years ago. What few prints that had existed were silent because the Vitaphone record was broken. But technicians were able to re-attach the record and edit out the scratches. The restored film with talking sequences (which were added after the film debuted as a silent), make this “goat gland” film one of major interest because it’s the talkie debut of at least three of its stars: Compson, Milton Sills, and Dorothy Mackaill.
An online review by Andre Soares mentions the voices of the actors. The critic notes that Sills is “woefully inadequate in the talking sequences.” He notes Mackaill’s “husky voice.” He says nothing about Compson’s voice but notes she “received most of the raves when the film came out.”
A contemporary opinion by Adela Rogers St. John stated: “If you didn’t see The Barker, you missed a great moment in screen history. The first-night audience in Los Angeles greeted the comeback of Compson, with cheers.” It’s also notable that Compson’s Oscar-nominated role (before there was a category for supporting roles) was not the starring role. Indeed, in the ads for the film (see above) Betty Compson isn’t even mentioned. In the Clara Bow remake a few years later, Bow (in her final film) played the Mackaill part; Minna Gombell played the Compson role.
Accepting St. John as a reliable eyewitness, the Oscar nomination for Compson makes more sense. The hometown audience was pulling once again for the “Comeback Kid.”